Daytona experience overhauled in a big way with stadium feel

The "injectors" to the concourse at Daytona International Speedway are full of racing touches, such as this race truck in the Toyota injector. Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A fan who takes a look around the new Daytona International Speedway grandstand project can see what $400 million looks like.

It looks like 31.6 million pounds of steel. Throw in more than 3,000 speakers and 1,400 television screens. What one can't see: 4,268 miles of fiber optic cable and 1,600 miles of data cable.

And that's not even why track president Joie Chitwood doesn't allow the use of the word "grandstand" anymore among his staff at the facility. They must now call his $400 million baby "the stadium." Even credentials that used to say "G" for grandstand access now have an "S" instead.

For Chitwood, the project -- dubbed "Daytona Rising" -- ranks as a stadium because it has massive concourses that stretch nearly a mile behind and underneath the grandstands along the track frontstretch. The seats -- all 101,500 new, 20 to 21 inches in width plus armrests and cupholders -- are more easily accessible through a series of escalators and ramps. The seats reach as high as 154 feet -- 24 feet higher than before and as high as the Federal Aviation Administration would allow with the airport virtually across the street from the track.

"These huge social zones [in the concourses], the opportunity to relax and enjoy and then go out into the seating area, before we didn't have that," Chitwood said. "We had a ground level and we had a grandstand. The facade itself has massive entrance statements, a huge marquee sign. We are a stadium."

Chitwood believes he can trace the reason so many fans stayed for the 11:30 p.m. running of the Sprint Cup race last July to fans congregating in the concourse areas and remaining dry. A year earlier, they would have had no choice but go to their cars or try to avoid the drops from underneath the stands.

He thinks the hand driers work well enough that he doesn't need to have paper-towel dispensers in the restrooms, the number of which has now doubled. How does he know? People used them to try to stay warm last February when part of the new grandstands opened.

"The fans were all here [in July] -- before, they would have ran for the hills," Chitwood said. "If you would have stood under the grandstands as it rained, you'd get as wet as if you were outside with no cover."

The project opens in full force this week, and fans most likely will be impressed. Ticket prices in some areas have increased, but paying for this project likely will come from the wallets of corporate sponsors.

Four companies have used the project as a major marketing opportunity, putting their names on the concourse entrances for likely millions of dollars as part of contracts that span 10 years at the minimum. But they did more than just put names on the outside trim. Toyota has an area where fans can have their headshot taken and their head suddenly appears on a bobblehead in a car going around the track. The video gets immediately emailed to the fan.

Florida Hospital has built a waterfall at its entrance, an entire interactive health and wellness center. Chevrolet and Toyota have areas to display cars, and Toyota has hung car bodies from underneath the bleachers that depict some of its racing history.

The suites don't consist of just seats. They're hospitality areas with massive seating capabilities. Daytona doesn't need a hospitality village with big but temporary tent chalets -- all of that hospitality can occur in a suite or on the concourse of the suite level. Toyota used tailgates for the backing for some of its benches. Toyota won't use it just for races. Sales meetings or vendor meetings could take place in the Toyota suite or concourse for group meetings anytime during the year.

"We basically took the hospitality village and built its own level in the stadium," Chitwood said.

DIS parent company International Speedway Corp. says it expects corporate sales to increase 11 percent this year, with much of that coming from the new Daytona project.

It won't entice corporate sales just with races. A country music festival already has been booked. And there is talk of football games and soccer matches on the DIS infield.

"Another key element of our decision to come here was this can't be about two NASCAR races -- it has to be the vision of other things," Toyota general manager for motorsports Keith Dahl said. "From country music festivals to other events, that was important to us."

Each of the concourses have social areas -- 11 in total -- that will have WiFi capability. While fans in the seats likely won't get the signal (certainly not optimal), they shouldn't have too far to go to an area where a fan can upload photos or check email.

Daytona included some safety and security improvements as part of the project, although the fencing remains the same. Fans get to their seats by taking escalators or steps and then walking down to the lowest levels, instead of walking underneath the stands toward the catchfence and then up to their seats. Underneath the stands is now an access road with no pedestrian traffic, decreasing congestion of deliveries to the suites and concession areas. More than 280 access-controlled doors should keep the bowels of the stadium and the various buildings more secure.

"When you think about what a stadium encompasses, multi concourses, true vertical transportation [with escalators and elevators] and a service level that is separate from the fan area -- all these things that you see in these new arenas and new stadiums is what we incorporated in this," Chitwood said.

Daytona also opted to get rid of what it considered its lowest-quality seats -- 46,000 of them -- as it ripped out the entire backstretch seating, which cut the capacity from 146,000 to 101,500, not including suites. The new version has more than 60 suites that seat 50 to 100 people each. ISC expects the project to increase revenues by $20 million a year, and it will increase by about 4 to 6 percent a year through increased corporate revenue and sales.

"We'll be probably five years figuring out how to utilize it and add more experience and more things for the fans," ISC chairman and NASCAR co-owner Jim France said. "We've got a lot of opportunity to add little features here and there as we go along that will continue to be impressive for several years to come."

There is a sports bar, Harley J's, on Level 2 that can seat 400 people, and Daytona will offer that for charity dinners and receptions as well as corporate events.

"We did not have space to truly entertain anyone because it was mostly temporary and the suites were much older," Chitwood said. "Now the suites are new. There is no wood paneling. It's new. It's inviting. It's modern."

Chitwood said people who have now seen the speedway under construction have bought tickets. He said Friday that the track is closing in on a sellout for the Daytona 500. Frankly, many thought the Daytona 500 would sell out in January. But as long as every seat has a butt in it Sunday, the ISC brass will have smiles on their faces. They won't truly know until next year whether the new stadium has done its $400 million job.

"I fully expect non-race fans once they sample the property [to say], 'Let's come back and check it out, I want to experience it,'" Chitwood said. "That's the goal. The nontraditional fan. Before I would put you in a 50-year-old seat, there could be troughs in the men's restroom, things that were not that inviting."